Star turned spectator

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:44 AM ET

Paul Kariya's name was once as synonymous with international hockey as Captain Canada, Ryan Smyth.

But the 2002 gold medallist and veteran of world juniors, world championships and world cups had his name crossed off of Team Canada's final list for the upcoming Turin Olympics.

Now on a point per game pace with the Nashville Predators in what has been a comeback season for Kariya, the diminutive star says he understands how tough the roster decisions must have been for the Canadian brass.

"I was disappointed, for sure, but we live in a country where there's a lot of great hockey players," said the affable winger prior to last night's game against the Calgary Flames.

"I got the opportunity to play in 2002 and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I'll be pulling for the guys that are over there."

Kariya joined the Preds as a free agent this year after struggling with injuries and inconsistency through 2003-04 as a member of the Avalanche.

The 5-ft. 10-in., 176-lb. speedster was one of many veteran NHLers who played no organized hockey during the lost lockout season. While Kariya says the layoff hurt his game early on, his statistics prove he can still be an offensive force. Kariya has 12 goals and 21 assists in 33 games under the refocused rule regime, thanks in part to great chemistry with teammate Steve Sullivan.

"Overall, I think I've played pretty well," said Kariya. "I mean, there've been some ups and downs. Taking a year off hockey last year, especially early on, my finish or my scoring (suffered). I had 16 or 17 breakaways in the first 15 games and got one goal.

"I would have liked to have scored more and that might have helped my chances.

"But, like I said, it's a difficult decision with a lot of great players. I'll become a fan now."

The disappointment may linger a while but Kariya is enjoying his hockey life in Nashville under the new rules.

Missing on breakaway opportunities is a heckuva lot better than not getting those chances.

"That's the thing," the 31-year-old said with a laugh.

"I think the last two years that we played I don't recall getting a breakaway. The game's so much better. Players like playing it and fans like watching it."

Also absent from the 2006 Olympic team are Kariya's fellow 2002 gold medallists Steve Yzerman and Mario Lemieux.

The two were arguably Canada's biggest motivators on and off the ice in Salt Lake City and their withdrawal left some wondering who will step up into those leadership roles.

Kariya sees that category as a Canadian strength.

"It's going to start with Joe Sakic, for sure. Talk about one of the greatest players to ever play the game and the MVP of 2002 Olympics," Kariya said.

"He's going to do a great job. Some of the guys like Rob Blake, Adam Foote, Jarome Iginla -- you can go up and down through the lineup -- how many guys are captains or assistants on their teams? I don't think leadership will ever be a problem in that locker-room.

"We've got, I think, the strongest team in the world and we're going to bring back the gold."


Videos

Photos